Hello there, writer!
I assume what brings you here is your passion for writing on human rights and all forms of discrimination. Maybe you’re just starting to explore these topics, or maybe you’ve already been writing for some time. And maybe you’ve noticed that there’s something amiss in how the world in general reports and consumes information about experiences of marginalisation. It can seem top-down, or saviourist. It can even disempower the communities being talked about. So how do we right these wrongs? Read on:
1. Trash That Victim Narrative!
Instead of tainting our writing with a saviour complex and referring to communities as ‘poor helpless victims’, we should report on the work they’ve done to secure their rights and dignity.
To further challenge the victim narrative, another small change is valuable. In cases where the marginalised person is alive, swap the word “victim” for “survivor”.
2. Focus On Perpetrators
When it comes to incidents of violence against marginalised people, you’ll often find writers use the passive voice: “She was raped”, “He was attacked”, “They were beaten up”. But by who? Replacing passive voice with active voice puts the spotlight on the wrongdoers, rather than the survivors. “He raped her”, “They attacked him”, “The mob beat them up” – frontloading your sentences like this helps direct our attention to the perpetrator.
3. Representation Matters
Another good way to counter the victim narrative is to include marginalised people in your story, let them speak for themselves.
By chasing behind ‘experts’, academics, political reps and other ‘authority’ figures we often exclude marginalised people, assuming their opinions aren’t as valuable. Represent marginalised voices in your writing by including their quotes, their writing, artwork, photos, and other digital media.
4. Be Intersectional
Ask yourself if the issue you are writing on pertains to more than one sexuality or gender identity, to religious minorities, to lower-income groups, to people of different ethnicities, to people with disabilities (PWDs), and different castes. Try covering all possible perspectives.
5. Stop ‘Othering’ People
Many terms discussed here have been carefully developed to express the identities of marginalised communities in a respectful and empowering way. This sure beats phrases like “these people”! At the same time, it’s a good practice to also use terms that reflect privilege: “cisgender”, “upper-caste” or ”savarna”, “male”, “heterosexual”, “non-disabled” and “neurotypical”. It shifts our attention and helps put the onus where it belongs – on dominant classes of society.
1. Umbrella Terms
Many of us have heard of the acronym “LGBT”, which stands for “lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual” and “trans”. Remember that there are identities like “asexual”, “pansexual”, “hijra”, “two spirit”, “intersex” “quioromantic” and others that are unknown to many of us. Adding a “+” to the acronym helps increase inclusivity.
You could also try “MOGAI”, another more inclusive acronym, which stands for “marginalised orientations, gender alignments and identities”.
2. Overlapping Identities And Subsets
Avoid using “gays” and “lesbians” as umbrella terms, because this excludes people who identify with various other identities. Use ‘gay man’, ‘lesbian woman’, ‘transgender man/woman’, ‘pansexual woman’ instead of ‘he is a gay’ etc.
Speaking of terminology, we should be aware of how inequalities seep into language. “He” and “she” can denote our personal proximity to ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ as gender identities. But they can also be employed against trans and nonbinary people, to cage them inside the gender they were assigned at birth. This is called misgendering.
Do not deadname people by using the name they have not chosen for themselves. And if you are unsure of what pronoun to use, ask them.
For more on how to write about queerness, click here.
Using “tribals” as a catch-all phrase for people from the Seven Sisters or Chhattisgarh is a big no-no. If it’s pertinent to your story, find out tribes’ names, where they are located, even what their primary economic activities are. And then write about them.Remember, people from the North East are not “chinki”. This word was actually prohibited by India’s Home Ministry in 2012!
Racial differences must be treated sensitively. Using the term “African” in place of one of the 54 nationalities on that continent is inappropriate.
Similarly, do away with terms like “Harijan”, “untouchable”, and “lower-caste”. The word you should be using is “Dalit”, which was coined by social reformer Jyotirao Phule to highlight upper-caste oppression.
Familiarise yourself with the names of Muslim communities too. Both Shias and Sunnis have several sects within themselves, each with different customs and beliefs. This goes for various Christian denominations, the Parsi community, and all other non-Hindu religious identities.
We must be aware of the history of the communities we write about. In short: Don’t erase important cultural differences by lumping everyone together.
Remember that urban, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual women are not the only focus of gender justice movements. When you write about an issue like menstruation, for example, be sure to explore the experiences of sex workers or trans men too.
We must diversify our approach to “women’s issues”. Viewing women as a monolith has always been a problem, since womanhood cannot be boiled down to a limited set of experiences. After all, the lives of Dalit women are very different from Brahmin women. Similarly, differences exist between the urban and rural, the elderly and the young women, straight and queer, cisgender and transgender, so on and so forth.
Last year, the word “divyang” was suggested as a replacement for “viklang” by our esteemed Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is by far the laziest attempt at including PWDs in the mainstream, while disability-friendly infrastructure is still unavailable in most of India. This sort of laziness happens in writing too, but you can avoid it.
Instead of saying ‘deaf’, ‘dumb’, and “blind”, use the terms “hearing-impaired”, “speech-impaired”, and “visually-impaired” respectively.
There are much more respectful and inclusive alternatives to commonly used ableist language like this, and you can find them here.
Noticing our misgivings, and working on them will take work and time. But it’s worth doing. Because, dear writer, you have the power to ensure that marginalised voices are heard. Make use of it.